Analysis: Ukraine: How the Global Fertiliser Shortage Is Going to Affect Food
We are currently witnessing the beginning of a global food crisis, driven by the knock-on effects of a pandemic and more recently the rise in fuel prices and the conflict in Ukraine. There were already clear logistical issues with moving grain and food around the globe, which will now be considerably worse as a result of the war. But a more subtle relationship sits with the link to the nutrients needed to drive high crop yields and quality worldwide.
Crops are the basis of our food system, whether feeding us or animals, and without secured supply in terms of volume and quality, our food system is bankrupt. Crops rely on a good supply of nutrients to deliver high yields and quality (as well as water, sunlight and a healthy soil), which in modern farming systems come from manufactured fertilisers. As you sit and read this article, the air you breath contains 78% nitrogen gas – this is the same source of nitrogen used in the production of most manufactured nitrogen fertilisers.
However, to take this gas from the air and into a bag of fertiliser takes a huge amount of energy. The Haber-Bosch process, which converts nitrogen and hydrogen into ammonia as a crucial step in creating fertilisers, uses between 1% and 2% of all energy generated globally by some estimates. Consequently, the cost of producing nitrogen fertiliser is directly linked to the cost of fuel. This is why the UK price of ammonium nitrate has climbed as high as £1,000 per tonne at the time of writing, compared to £650 a week ago.
Fertiliser inputs to farming systems represent one of the largest single variable costs of producing a crop. When investing in fertiliser, a farmer must balance the return on this investment through the price they receive at harvest. Adding more fertiliser, for a small improvement in yield, might not pay for itself at harvest.
Photo courtesy of Loren King.